Biggest North Pole mission returns from 'dying Arctic'
Researchers from the world's largest mission to the North Pole will return to the dock on Monday, bringing home devastating evidence of a dying Arctic Ocean and warnings of ice-free summers in just decades.
The Polarstern ship of the German Alfred Wegener Institute will return to the port of Bremerhaven after 389 days in the Arctic trapped in the ice, so that scientists can collect important information on the effects of global warming in the region.
The team of several hundred scientists from 20 countries has convinced itself of the dramatic effects of global warming on the ice in the region, which, according to mission leader Markus Rex, is considered to be the "epicenter of climate change".
"We saw the Arctic Ocean die," Rex told AFP. "We saw this process right outside our windows or when we were walking on the brittle ice."
Underlining how much sea ice has melted away, Rex said the mission could sail through large expanses of open water "that sometimes stretch to the horizon."
"At the North Pole itself, we found heavily eroded, melted, thin and brittle ice."
- 'Ice-free Arctic' -
If the warming trend at the North Pole continues, we will have "an ice-free Arctic in summer," said Rex in a few decades.
The researchers' observations were backed up by US satellite imagery showing that sea ice in the Arctic reached its second lowest summer minimum in 2020 after 2012.
The Polarstern mission, known as MOSAIC, collected data on the atmosphere, ocean, sea ice and ecosystems for over a year in order to assess the effects of climate change on the region and the world.
To carry out the research, four observation points were set up on the sea ice within a radius of up to 40 kilometers around the ship.
The researchers collected water samples under the ice during the polar night to study plant plankton and bacteria and better understand how the marine ecosystem functions under extreme conditions.
The 140 million euro expedition will also bring back 150 terabytes of data and more than 1,000 ice samples.
"The expedition will of course produce results on many different levels," said Rex.
The team has measured more than 100 parameters almost continuously throughout the year and hopes the information will bring "a breakthrough in understanding the Arctic and the climate system," he said.
It will take up to two years to analyze the data in order to develop models that can be used to predict what heat waves, heavy rainfall or storms could look like in 20, 50 or 100 years.
- 20 polar bears -
Since the ship left Tromsø, Norway, on September 20, 2019, the crew have experienced long months of complete darkness, temperatures as low as -39.5 degrees Celsius and around 20 polar bears.
The mission was almost derailed by the coronavirus pandemic in the spring and the crew was stranded at the North Pole for two months.
A multinational team of scientists was to fly in as part of a planned relay to relieve those who had already spent several months on the ice. However, the plan had to be redrawn when flights around the world were canceled as governments scrambled to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
During the expedition, a rotating crew of 300 researchers spent time aboard the German ship, which was traveling with the ice on a wind-powered route known as transpolar drift.
Radiance Calmer, a researcher at the University of Colorado who was aboard Polarstern from June through September, told AFP that stepping on the ice was a "magical" moment.
"If you focus, you can feel it moving," she said.
The ship's cook Sven Schneider did not underestimate the importance of his role in the mission.
"It was my job to maintain the morale of 100 people who live in complete darkness," he said in an interview with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
yap-fec / hmn / yy
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